Chapter 2 - A Storm Brewing
Padmé was smiling at the dark-haired woman sitting next to her, pale face earnest and alert. Her friend just could not shed her habits even when she was off duty. But then, Sabé never thought herself off duty. It had been a small legislative war to retain a bodyguard even though Padmé had stepped down as Queen of Naboo to serve in the Senate four years ago. But Jamillia, the new Queen, and Supreme Chancellor Palpatine had insisted. They believed that she could still become a target and Sabé simply was the one of her former handmaidens who was used to playing her role and who resembled her most.
The only one who had really grumbled over this arrangement had been Anakin. Smiling fondly at the memory, the Senator recalled his pouting face when she had told him. "You do not need a bodyguard!" he had protested. But her husband was a Jedi Knight now and he had other duties than babysitting her. It had taken some of her persuasion skills to ease his worries, but now they had both gotten used to Sabé's presence. Fortunately.
Still, the fond memories could not disperse her worries. Obi-Wan had called her, told her that Anakin had been gravely injured on Tatooine. She had wanted to go and pick him up herself immediately, after all Naboo was not that far from the desert planet, but Obi-Wan had asked her to come straight to Coruscant instead. Her forehead creased into a frown. For some reason she believed that there was more to the attack than she had been told. Something to do with the Alliance? Was it that? Had the Alliance attacked Tatooine? Well, she would have to be a little more patient.
Raising her head, Padmé smiled up at the golden droid bustling into the ship's passenger compartment. At her side Sabé regarded the newcomer icily.
"What is it, Threepio?"
"The captain asked me to inform you of our imminent arrival at Coruscant."
"I so hope that Master Anakin is feeling better!"
"As do I, Threepio."
"It was foolish to go to Tatooine all on his own!"
"He was raised there," she reminded the agitated droid patiently. Before he could say another word though, Sabé rose abruptly and pushed past him almost violently. Padmé shook her head with a tiny smile. The animosity between the droid and the bodyguard was no secret. But then, Threepio managed to get on everyone's nerves. Most of the time.
Obi-Wan Kenobi was anxiously waiting for his friends to arrive. The ship that dropped down on the landing pad first, as expected, was the one he had given to Jespa for this mission. A medic team was standing ready to receive Anakin, and the Jedi Master was by the entry hatch faster than anyone could blink their eyes, extremely worried. The moment the hatch opened he was inside on the spot, searching for his apprentice and his friend. But the first to meet him was a stranger. Of average height and apparently pretty young, there was something dangerous about him. His blue eyes were regarding him icily and he placed himself in the Jedi Master's path quite nonchalantly.
"And who might you be?"
Obi-Wan gave him a pleasant smile. "I am Obi-Wan. And you are?"
"Huh?" The man blinked at him, apparently surprised at this very informal introduction. "Er, you want to see Anakin, I assume? This way." He pointed aft with his left hand, Kenobi noticed. To be able to reach his weapons just in case? Probably. Pushing past what could only be Wrenga Jixton, Obi-Wan shook his head in quiet amusement. Anakin? That was something Jespa had not told him. When he eventually found both her and Anakin in the medical ward, she was busy helping the young Jedi Knight rise.
"Hey, heads up," Obi-Wan told them with a small smile.
"I try," Anakin answered painfully and got to his feet with a sigh. "Has Padmé arrived already?"
"No, not yet." Slipping an arm around the other's shoulders, he helped him to the hatch, Jespa following behind. "But she'll be here every minute now."
"Good." The relief in Anakin's tone was heart-wrenching and turned the Jedi Master's stomach to lead.
"Are you all right?" he asked quietly.
"As I said: I try."
It was clear that Anakin did not want to talk about his mother's death. But in the end he would have to, and Padmé probably was the best choice to do the listening. Suddenly he wished that she were already here. As they passed the Corellian bodyguard on the way down to the platform, Obi-Wan remembered the other task he had been given.
"Mister Jixton, you are to report directly to the Supreme Chancellor. There is someone waiting to escort you."
"I see. Thank you." The man shot Anakin a questioning glance, which the young man returned with a reassuring nod. "I'll see you later then."
"Yes, do that."
Jix threw a last look at his friend, feeling uneasy. I should not worry, he thought, Anakin has people to take care of him. But he knew first-hand that some things you had to deal with alone. Friends could only ease the pain. For a moment he wished that he had had any at that time, but then he shook the memory off again. That was long gone and he had grown out of the grief.
Stomping down the landing ramp he hurried over to what looked like his escort. The three guards nodded at him and took him in their midst. Out of habit Jix' right hand wandered down to rest on the reassuring weight of his blaster. As they were walking toward the doors that would allow them entry into the Governmental Palace, the bodyguard took to scanning the windows looking out at them, but the glare of the sun was bright against the viewports, making it almost impossible to make out any watchers that might be hidden there.
Once indoors, Jix relaxed a bit. They would be under the scrutiny of security cameras and guards now and they should be safe. Or so he thought. Still, when they rounded a corner into an awfully deserted corridor, he felt all of his instincts scream at him to get away. The guard in the lead suddenly brought his head up and looked around. Too late. He dropped with a tiny sigh, no injury apparent, and the remaining two soldiers had their weapons out in a flash.
A shadow dashed past Jix and for a second he froze when he recognized the man who was just now tackling the guards with lightning speed.
In a heart-beat it was all over. They faced each other over the discarded bodies of Jix' escort, the moments passing by unnoticed. The Corellian stared at the tall man in open astonishment. He had met him once, no, he realized, twice. First on Nal Hutta and then on Tatooine. And on both occasions the other had emerged victorious.
Making a split-second decision the bodyguard spun around and ran.
"Not so fast."
The voice was calm, but Jix did not really hear it when he hit the ground hard, a great weight pressing him down. Struggling to get up once more, the bodyguard made a grab for the knifes tucked behind his belt. In an instance he was turned on his back and the last thing he saw was a black-gloved fist coming at him full force.
Anakin was shivering with relief at seeing Padmé standing there at one of the windows, tiny strands of her dark hair that had escaped her elaborate hair-style trailing behind her when she turned around to face him. Her eyes were even larger than usual and he could sense the tension drain from her as their eyes met. A small smile appeared on her lips as she came forward to embrace him. Letting go of him Obi-Wan took a few steps back.
"Will you two be all right?" the general asked quietly. Anakin merely nodded, unable to tear his gaze away from his beautiful, luminous wife. Once their friend had left, Padmé's face fell.
"I was so worried!"
"It's okay," he answered, swallowing his own lie. She gave him a stern glance, then took his hand to guide him toward one of the chairs scattered across her senatorial quarters.
"Nonsense, Anakin. Nothing is all right and you know it," she admonished him. He ignored the sharp tone, merely holding her hand, cherishing the touch of her soft skin, her warmth, her very presence. "Are you listening at all?"
Slightly taken aback, he let go of her once more and sat down. "Please, I do not want to talk about that now."
"Anakin," she whispered, leaning closer, her warm breath caressing his cheeks gently before she kissed him. Unbidden tears broke through the numbness he had imprisoned his grief in at her tenderness.
"Sh," she said and placed the tip of her right index finger on his lower lip. "You did not want to talk, remember?"
Closing his eyes he felt his determination melt away under her touch, felt himself be wrapped into their very own protective cocoon where nothing existed but the two of them. And slowly her love banished away the sorrow. Jumping up suddenly Anakin heaved a deep sigh.
"I do not want to forget her," he told Padmé firmly.
"You will not, my love, I know that. But please, you need to heal too. I need you." The smile was back in place. "We need you."
Staring at her dumbfounded, he did not realize what she was talking about at first. But then she tapped her belly gently, the smile widening. "Really? You are-"
"Twins. A son and a daughter. Our children."
Anakin dropped down to kneel in front of the chair she sat perched on and wrapped his arms around her slender torso very carefully. "This is so... At this time..."
She wiped away her tears. "This is life," she said softly. "For every sorrow there is joy. For every death new life. We will never forget Shmi. And we will bring those who killed her to justice."
"Jabba," Anakin spat. "I should have killed him!"
"Please, calm down. You need to stay calm."
"Yes. You are right. Once Jix is back we will report to the Jedi Council. I met someone on Tatooine they need to know about."
Thinking back on that strange encounter, Anakin's mood darkened considerably. "Yes. Someone. The Sith, it would seem, are back."
Obi-Wan Kenobi was anxious to hear his friend's report, but when Anakin Skywalker walked into the Council Chamber, for a second his stance looked as if he meant to conquer it. Following him Padmé was wearing the same grim determination on her face that her husband showed also. Anakin nodded at the assembled masters and took a position in the middle of the floor, then waited until he was asked to proceed.
As it was, Master Yoda let him wait for quite a long time, while he kept on studying the young Jedi Knight very closely. Finally he broke the silence with a single word.
Bowing slightly Anakin began: "Thank you. Masters, I have grave news. As you know the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sri Olec, was murdered on Nal Hutta a week ago. By chance I met her bodyguard, Wrenga Jixton, on Tatooine. He is right now being questioned by the Supreme Chancellor. Mister Jixton had orders from Sri Olec to uncover information that would imply the Hutts' hands in the war we are trying to avert. He asked me for help and I gave it."
"The information you uncovered has been analysed," Master Windu cut in smoothly. "It does not prove anything." Watching his friend nearly choke on a reply, Obi-Wan tensed with some concern.
"That is impossible. I checked it before I downloaded those files."
"I do not mean to belittle your efforts, but the fact remains." Raising his eyebrows questioningly, the bald Jedi Master leaned back in his chair, waiting. To Obi-Wan's surprise it was Padmé who answered his unspoken question.
"Quite a few things might have occurred," she said. "Maybe the datacard was exchanged."
"I doubt Jixton would do such a thing," Anakin interrupted her sourly. She only gave him a cold glance that silenced him immediately.
"That may be so or not, but, as Master Windu has stated, the fact remains. This is unfortunate. At this point I must ask the Council for another audition."
Windu jerked back in surprise. "Well," he replied at last, "if Jedi Skywalker's report is finished, we might proceed with your hearing." He gave the tiny alien to his right a look that was quietly asking for counsel.
"Finished he is not. Tell us what you know," Yoda ordered calmly.
"Thank you, Master. I also encountered someone else on Tatooine. A stranger to me, but highly suspicious. I believe he is a Dark Jedi, maybe the Sith we have been looking for."
"A Sith? Certain you are?"
"Relatively tall, lithe, olive skin, black eyes. He was talking about anger as a weapon for justice."
Obi-Wan hissed between clenched teeth quite involuntarily, but he could sense the shock emanating from the entire Council. Of course, Anakin was too young to know, but he himself remembered.
"You met him on Tatooine?" he asked quickly, then stepped forward to address the Council. "Maybe there is a connection between the Sith and the Hutts. I suggest we investigate this further. This is far too reminiscent of the Naboo affair."
"Hardly an affair, Master Kenobi," Padmé reminded him, her eyebrows arched coolly. "I can see that this takes precedent over my request. Still, will you hear me tonight?"
"Certainly. Jedi Skywalker, thank you for your report. You will be summoned if we require additional information. Master Kenobi, I would ask you to stay," Windu explained. Thus dismissed Anakin shot a grim glance at the assembly, then turned around and left without another word. Padmé smiled at her retreating husband's back before she nodded at the Council. "Thank you. Until tonight then."
Watching her leave, Obi-Wan could not shed a strange feeling of finality. Something important had just occurred.
"Master Kenobi, did you perceive anything unusual about Jedi Skywalker?"
"He is grieving for his mother. Naturally. Apart from that I believe he had high hopes for this particular piece of evidence."
"Think so I do too," Yoda mused softly. "Yet careful we must be. This Jixton, trustworthy he is?"
"Well, the Chancellor seems to think so."
"And this so-called Sith, believe you do there is a connection to the Sith you slew on Naboo?"
Obi-Wan shook his head firmly. "With permission, I was just a child back then,
"With the right means everyone can be ensnared in the Dark Side, Master Kenobi," Windu explained. "There are no exceptions. Besides-"
The door flew open quite suddenly and the young woman storming into the chamber stopped out of breath and bowed deeply in the matter of a heart-beat. "Bad news," she gasped. "There's been an attack-"
"Jespa," Obi-Wan told her gently, "don't forget to breathe. What happened?"
"Jixton's escort has been murdered and there is no trace of him. Security is just now going through the tape of the camera observing that corridor."
Raising his eyebrows in surprise, Mace Windu looked at Obi-Wan. "First a lost datacard and now this? Maybe the Chancellor was mistaken in trusting this bodyguard."
"Assume I would not that much," Yoda admonished the bald Jedi coolly. "Evidence there is not."
"And yet this Jixton might also have murdered Sri Olec. Who knows?"
"Too suspicious you are. Conspirators you see everywhere. Harmless this could be."
Obi-Wan pressed his lips together grimly. Could Anakin have been deceived that way? Maybe. In a sense his friend was far too trusting. And if this Jixton had known what chords to play he would have followed him blindly, trusting his heart more than his senses and the Force. He vowed to himself to talk to Padmé in private and ask her to keep a close eye on her husband, maybe teach him a few things. But first he would have to tell Anakin that he might have been betrayed. Perhaps together they could get to the bottom of this. "Very well," he told the assembly. "For now I have a war to deal with. Maybe you could appoint someone else to take care of that other threat?"
"Since he is the only one who has seen him, we should choose Anakin Skywalker. But that risk is too high."
"Not too high," Master Yoda said pensively. "Perhaps just right."
Coming to again, Jix rose with a groan. As he sat up he became aware of someone standing in front of him. His eyes wandered upward to meet the black-eyed gaze of his captor.
"I remember you."
"Great. Come on. We should not keep the Chancellor waiting."
The Chancellor? Scrambling to his feet Jix patted his belt out of habit, but found it empty of his weapons. Just as he had suspected. "And then?"
"After you," was all the stranger said as he gestured at him to get moving.
They went through a nicely decorated door that led into an even grander room beyond. At the window an elderly man was watching the busy lanes of the capital. Jix had seen his face numerous times on the news, but up close Supreme Chancellor Palpatine seemed even more stately.
"Ah, Wrenga Jixton. It is a pleasure to meet you at last," he said, his voice soft and smooth.
"Is it?" Jix asked helplessly.
He was staring at the black-clad man standing between him and the Chancellor. Palpatine followed his gaze thoughtfully.
"You seem disturbed at Lord Vader's presence."
"You have met him."
The stranger nodded with a smile and crossed his arms on his chest calmly. Jix did not like the merry look in his eyes at all.
"Don't you want me to report on Nal Hutta and Tatooine?" he tried at last. It was such a strange, mood, completely surreal.
The Chancellor chuckled softly as he took a few steps forward. "Rest assured that I know everything about those missions."
"What?" The young bodyguard froze in surprise. If he knew already-! For a second he thought about going for his weapons, but two factors prevented him from making a complete fool of himself. First, he remembered that he had been disarmed, and second, Vader was stalking around him as if he had anticipated his very thought. So Jix just remained standing there, dumbfounded.
"You have heard me correctly, I am sure. And your question leads us to the primary reason for my calling you here. You know that we are as good as at war. The Hutts have made their stance in this conflict abundantly clear and we cannot tolerate this any longer. Not with Sri Olec dead. Unfortunately the way things are now, we will be far too slow to act. What we need is anything but a Senate that takes ages to come to any decision. We need men like you, loyal and effective. You, Wrenga Jixton, will be the first of a new order."
Jix swallowed once. "A new order?"
"I know you do not think much of authority, Jixton, but this will be worth it."
"I mean no disrespect, sir, but I still don't understand what exactly you want from me."
A low laugh made him turn his head to see the amused smile on Vader's lips. "So modest," the other commented drily. "You are not required to think, Jixton, just to act."
"In time everything will become clear," the Chancellor added with an almost fatherly nod. "Lord Vader will take care of your training."
"Training? Wait a friggin second! I haven't even said I would join this new order of yours!"
"Your opinion on this matter is somewhat irrelevant, Jixton."
Before he could voice his protests more clearly, Jix found himself being dragged out of the room swiftly. He kicked the tall man holding on to his left arm quite viciously, but the other did not even seem to feel it. Instead he just turned his struggling charge around so he stood behind him and remained motionless, just holding him very tightly. Jix was paralyzed with shock and fear. He could not move, he could not speak, there was just this awful feeling of infinite despair that filled his soul completely.
When finally the sensation ceased, he heaved a deep sigh and almost lost his balance. Without a word Vader frog-marched him down a corridor Jix could hardly believe existed in the Palace. It was windowless and narrow, as if built inbetween two separate walls. And then Vader began to talk, his voice sending echoes ahead of them.
"Your friends believe that you have murdered your escort and stolen the datacard. They will find more evidence of your betrayal in the next few days and rest assured that I will make it very convincing."
"Anakin has seen you," Jix hissed, because it seemed the only thing to say. Anakin was a Jedi Knight and this man very obviously quite the opposite.
"Ah, yes, and I am looking forward to seeing him again. Unfortunately your young friend does not enjoy the Council's trust. And guess what? They won't have any reason to change that stance in the future either. Besides, you'll soon find that I am not such a bad taskmaster."
"I doubt it," the Corellian mumbled under his breath.
They had reached the end of this corridor and a barren steel-door led them into a winding staircase. A few levels down another door opened into a completely different world. What hit Jix first was the humidity that immediately clung to his skin and clothes. Yet the air was refreshingly cool, the source of this cold the three water basins placed strategically throughout the chamber.
Jix noticed that the two opposing basins were shallow, with flat stone steps crossing them that apparently lead to adjoining rooms. The third he could not make out so clearly yet. A relief had been carved into the wall looming over that pool, strangely stylized scenes the young bodyguard did not care to understand. Instead his gaze was drawn to the floor, which was covered in giant black stone tiles. He did not notice the Twi'lek crouching in one corner until Vader called him.
"Ycha," he said loudly and let go of Jix. A mistake. Moving immediately the Corellian rammed his left elbow into the other man's stomach, whirled around his own axis and hit the side of his neck with the palm of his right hand. And screamed in pain.
Stepping away from him elegantly Vader turned around to walk toward the end of the room where the Twi'lek was handing him a tray with some foodstuffs and what looked like tea. Jix watched the pair through tear-filled eyes and held his left side futilely, trying to understand what had happened. It felt as if one or two of his ribs had been cracked, but he could have sworn that Vader had never touched him.
"We will have time for such things later," his new instructor told him, then waved him closer. Hobbling over, still hunched, up in pain Jix dropped down on the indicated cushion and suppressed a groan. "Ycha, you may leave us. See to it that Mister Jixton's quarters are prepared." Black eyes latched onto the young Corellian. "Now, to put things straight between us: you will not attack me unless in training sessions. Clear?"
Vader smiled thinly. "You did not mean that, and I do not care. But you have experienced just now what disobedience will gain you. Now, how old are you? Nineteen? Twenty?"
Jix glowered at him: "Old enough." The other man laughed out loud.
"Good," he purred. "Very good. Now," setting down the cup he had been sipping at, Vader leaned forward a bit and studied Jix more closely. "I have heard a lot about you. You are good, it would seem, and under my tutelage you will become even better. You will be the best assassin this galaxy has ever seen."
"Who says I want that?"
"I do. Your first tasks will be to accompany me and watch. And learn. Later I will give you missions that will certainly be most challenging.But for today we will just get to know each other better."
"What order was the Chancellor talking about?"
"The Chancellor takes his responsibilites very seriously, Jixton. And the Republic does hardly need unnecessary procedures. What we want is order, and ultimately, justice."
"Ah? And for that you need an assassin?"
Vader laughed softly. "I imagine this is very confusing for you, but you will understand why we are doing this and why we need you. Besides, you will not only be any assassin, Jixton. But that is in the future. For now, I believe you need to get rid of some surplus energy. I can feel your anger very clearly. Come."
He rose gracefully while Jix shot to his feet as fast as he could, so the pain lasted only for a heart-beat. Following Vader he hesitated a bit when they crossed one of the ponds, wondering if they were just for decoration or if they served a real purpose. But then they stepped into the room beyond and everything else was forgotten. There was a sand-filled basin in one corner and another pool too. This one had what looked like a cross rising from its midst and chains hanging from the arms of said cross. Apart from that the room was barren, and while the walls were padded with some sort of fabric, the floor was hard wood. At his side Vader shrugged out of his long cloak easily before he dropped his tunic next to it. Underneath, his torso and neck were covered by light armor, a fact that had Jix in a rage almost immediately. So he'd cheated!
"Now. This is where you will spend most of your time. Your new home, so to speak. What do you say?"
Instead of answering Jix let his fists do the talking, but Vader's style was far more eloquent than his. Still, the Corellian was determined on not letting the other man get the better of him. Determination is a fine thing....
Twenty minutes later Jix was hunched over, completely exhausted and hurting, while Vader wasn't even breathing hard. Flexing his hands the man smiled. "That was good exercise. You are fast, I have to grant you that. But we need to work on your defenses." Patting his charge's shoulder amiably he turned around to head for the door. "And now I'll show you to your room. Mind if I call you Jix?"
"Sure, if I can call you Sithspawn in turn," Jix whispered at his back.